The Happiest Man in the World by Alec Wilkinson

April 29th, 2008 at 6:26 pm

The Happiest Man in the World by Alec Wilkinson

I was disappointed in reading The Happiest Man in the World to learn that it was not about me.

I have felt certain, for some years now, that I have been followed off and on by a writer from the New Yorker who has been clandestinely observing and recording my life so that he could later filter it into gripping, affecting prose that would convincingly illuminate my unassuming, humble happiness.

Instead, Alec Wilkinson had been tailing one David Pearlman, or Poppa Neutrino.

And for the better. This compact telling of Neutrino’s many odd and divergent adventures makes for a remarkable biography; a biography distinctly detached from the traditional regurgitations of war heroes and world leaders and celebrities that often serve little more than to reinforce sentimental nostalgia and hackneyed myth.

Similar to the way Schulz and Peanuts mustered a decent tale out of a boring man’s life, The Happiest Man in the World is an entirely fascinating read about a bum. Yes, a bum. Nothing against bums, forgive my predetermined assumption about the interest-quotient and book-worthiness of bums, but I’m not the one writing and publishing the glut of biographies on war heroes, world leaders, and celebrities.

And Poppa Neutrino really isn’t a bum. Well, he is, but in reading The Happiest Man in the World, you’ll learn many other great phrases for these get-a-job-get-married-get-a-house-challenged individuals, like “modern day aborigine.” But for all intents and purposes, Neutrino is what most of us would consider a bum. He is often homeless, he panhandles and performs on the street for money, he hitchhikes, and salvages discarded materials. After reading this book, you will think twice before sticking your nose up at that bum on the corner asking you for loose change. He or she may very well be famously profiled in a book by a writer from the New Yorker detailing their diverse life of serving in the Korean War, becoming an ordained Baptist pastor, inventing football plays, working as a painter, musician, and in the circus, and sailing across the Atlantic Ocean in a home-made raft.

Wilkinson’s brief encapsulation of Poppa Neutrino’s life is captivating. The chapters are short, the subject is enchanting, and the storytelling is detailed without being exhaustive and burdened by analysis and judgment. That’s not to say it is completely objective (God, wouldn’t that be boring!). Wilkinson does allow himself some sparse commentary, but mostly confines it to Chapter 1 of Part Two with observations like, “If he had in him a shred of materialism, I am persuaded that his cleverness, his resourcefulness, and his vitality would have made fortunes, and his story would be conventional.”

Reading Wilkinson’s account of Neutrino, I got the feeling that he was committed to Neutrino the man and not just Neutrino the character of his next book that, please for the love of god I hope sells so I better try to make this really fucking interesting and spice it up with every last speck of dirt I have dug up on the guy. Wilkinson must have done some extensive interviewing and research, sure, but it is his subject, the interminable Poppa Neutrino, that shines through.

So thank god for Alec Wilkinson having the good sense to get out of the goddamned way of such a singular person and doing us all a service by sharing Neutrino’s life in clean, simple sentences that are precise and refreshingly void of any elegiac schmaltziness.

The Happiest Man in the World is damn fine storytelling.

And I look forward to “The Happiest Woman in the World.”



Movie Mania

April 26th, 2008 at 9:37 am

Book publishing continues to (de?)volve into a mere feeder industry for Hollywood.

Is this a bad thing? Should books, as an art form, be more independent and self-serving than simply fertilizer for motion pictures? Have books mutated into cattle egrets for the cash cows of Hollywood? With the success and critical acclaim of There Will be Blood and No Country for Old Men, are we just biding our time for the wide release of The Road and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao?

Guillermo del Toro will be directing the two film adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Yes two. Go for three, I say. Peter Jackson will executive produce. Children of Hurin is around the corner. Be patient. The robber baron whores will get to it. I promise.

Nora Ephron will be directing the film adaptation of Julie and Julia. Amy Adams is set to play the titular Julie and Meryl Streep will portray Julia Child. I love Amy Adams. Amy Adams and Jenna Fischer are my Marisha Pessl and Zadie Smith of movies and television.

Tucker Max’s bestselling I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell is also due to receive a moving picture interpretation.

Sales of a book always increase after their movie adaptation, which is great for the publishing industry and authors by exposing the work to readers it would have not otherwise been exposed to, but isn’t it a bit sad when a book only acquires a level of legitimacy if it’s made into a movie?



Author Thomas Friedman Gets Pied

April 24th, 2008 at 6:28 pm

Author of The World is Flat and a New York Times columnist, Thomas Friedman was recently viciously attacked by two brutal assailants armed with creamy green pies who disagree with Friedman.

Friedman is only the most recent in a storied history of pie targets. It’s an honorable thing, to a throw a pie at someone you disagree with.

I don’t know if I should shrug, cock my head, smirk, or squint. It’s a silly world. It, the world, would be funny if it wasn’t so serious.

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Memoir Mania

April 24th, 2008 at 6:02 pm

The publishing industry’s fixation with the memoir genre persists like my dog’s child-like fascination with the heater.

In both cases, I’m exasperating a big fat WTF?

Memoirs are the only thing that sells? They’re better? Given all the instances of fabrications and concoctions in memoirs recently, and all the gaffes perpetrated by the Bush Administration, I guess we just like being lied to these days.

Uber-memoirist Augusten Burroughs is set to publish his latest, A Wolf at the Table.

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Donald Rumsfeld will also be publishing a memoir. Rummy declined an advance and “the proceeds will be donated to a not-for-profit foundation he set up to fund global microfinance efforts, foster public service among promising young people through educational grants and build links between America and central Asia.” For all Rumsfeld’s failures, file this under “the least he could do.”

Speaking of failures, Mike Huckabee will be publishing a memoir about his unsuccessful presidential bid.

And even the whitetrash mutant offspring of Billy Ray “Achy Breaky Heart” Cyrus, Miley Cyrus of Hannah Montana fame has received a book deal to write her “memoirs.”

And as absurd and unfortunate as it is, Miley’s will sell the most.

I guarantee it.



Black Hole by Charles Burns

April 23rd, 2008 at 4:34 pm

As novels go the way of five-act plays written in iambic pentameter, graphic novels have emerged to provide a glimmer of hope. Graphic novels have gained much relevance and respect as a legitimate art form in the past years thanks to the undeniable brilliance of artists like Christopher Ware and champions like Michael Chabon and Jonathan Lethem.

And there just might be some money to be made as well. Graphic novel sales were up 12% in 2007 over 2006.

Black Hole by Charles Burns will not find itself included in the Whitney Bicentennial as a lauded, official Work of Art like Christopher Ware’s masterwork Jimmy Corrigan: Smartest Kid on Earth, but it is just as equally obsessed with sex as every single other graphic novel.

The Salon. Shortcomings. David Boring. Blankets. Sex. Sex. Sex. Sex.

Graphic novelists love them some sex (or are at least fixated on the lack thereof). And unlike traditional writers, they’re not confined to just describing it. They get to show it; in all its awkward, pubic hair-filled glory.

Charles Burns is no different by any means. Black Hole is absolutely full of penises and vaginas. Especially vaginas. And I mean to the brim, overflowing, and maxed out with sex.
Burns’ dramatic black and white illustrations are vivid and stirring; but mostly stirring, vivid images of penises and vaginas. Lots and lots of vaginas. And pubic hair. Don’t forget the pubic hair.

Why are graphic novelists so obsessed about sex?

Because they’re nerds.

Why are graphic novels so popular/successful? Because they’re written by nerds about nerdy things that nerds can relate to. And nerds are the only demographic reading these days. Any cool person is playing a sport or getting laid or getting drunk or getting high or getting paid. The nerds are in the bookstores nerding out to nerdy things like graphic novels.

But nerds run the world. So it all evens out. The true dopes peaked in high school. Poor saps.

I would like to think that graphic novels are also popular/successful, and will continue to be, because they tend to be well-crafted, worthwhile works of artistic entertainment. As their name suggests, they are novels, yes, like any other novel with a decent story, but they’re illustrated so they’re fun and enjoyable to read. And they typically don’t take forever to get through. Even Black Hole, coming in at 400 some-odd pages, only took me a handful of sittings to finish (I don’t know how many pages it is because the pages are not numbered. Those graphic novelists, so artsy with their formalist reinforcements of themes.)

When I was done with Black Hole, that bizarre thing, I was truly confused and disturbed. But I’d prefer to praise Mr. Burns for his marvelous tour de force than reveal my own ignorance of what exactly he was doing with all that weird coming-of-age, sexually transmitted disease, drug, sex, violence, freak show weirdness.

So bravo, Charles Burns!

Reading is sexy, indeed!

Thanks for all the penises and vaginas!

And pubic hair!!!



Roald Dahl’s Hot Granddaughter Authors Book

April 22nd, 2008 at 8:37 pm

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Sophie Dahl, granddaughter of Roald Dahl, has written a novel called Playing With the Grown-ups.

Sophie used to be a model, is an editor at Men’s Vogue, and is now a novelist.

Plus she’s smoking hot. So watch out Marisha Pessl and Zadie Smith.

Speaking of which, of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, Sophie says, “First novels are not meant to be that good.”

They’re not? Well maybe you should have set your standards just a little bit higher, Ms. Dahl. Zadie sure did, going so far as refusing to award a literary prize for lack of worthy material.

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According to its publisher, “Playing with the Grown-ups is an enchanting novel about growing up in a loving, utterly chaotic household; it is also hilarious, heartbreaking, and scandalous. The offbeat and often comic adventures of the free-spirited heroines—Marina and Kitty alike—will remind readers of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. With her magnificent talent for storytelling and creating unconventional characters, Sophie Dahl ably carries on the literary legacy of her grandfather, the beloved children’s book author, Roald Dahl.”

They don’t seem to mention anything about how hot Sophie is. Which is probably why no one reads books and instead sees movies, watches cable news, worships pop stars, and obsesses about celebrities. Give us what we want!

I’m sure her words are pretty too. But they could at least hook us with her looks. Put her on the cover maybe? Everything else is sold that way. Or are we happy with a failing, archaic industry?

I know, I know, I know…literature is the last bastion of dignity and artistic merit with fibbing authors and classy tell-alls.

But isn’t familial heritage just as irrelevant as physical appearance? So out with the grandfather and in with the long, bare legs.



Bush Budget Eliminates Reading

April 21st, 2008 at 3:34 pm

President Ahab’s proposed 2009 budget “eliminates all the funding for Reading Is Fundamental’s book distribution program that has, since 1966, provided more than 325 million books to more than 30 million underprivileged children.”

This is sour news. Especially since President Ahab’s mother and wife have both served on Reading is Fundamental’s board in the past. And his daughter, Jenna, is a published author.

I cringe at George W. Bush’s reckless buffoonery as much as the next Patriot, but what has  consistently amazed me is his utter oblivion to irony. It’s as if he hasn’t read enough books to properly appreciate the rhetorical device. Irony and World Leaders. Irony is just not something that heads of state seem to grasp very well. Something about history repeating…

But this kind of news is to be expected in the American Age of Unreason where Everything Bad is Good For You and our modern robber barons like Steve Jobs proudly and profitably proclaim that no one reads.

An Assault on Reason indeed.

Yes. The book is about as appealing as a Ball and Cup when we are mesmerized by gadgets like the iPod and hypnotized by gimmicks like Shock and Awe.

Because the right people aren’t doing enough to make reading sexy.



Hell’s Angels by Hunter S. Thompson

April 17th, 2008 at 7:23 pm

Hunter S. Thompson’s first book, Hell’s Angels is not nearly as “gonzo” or as good as his later writings and not nearly as fresh and fascinating as, say, Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Hell’s Angels is a far more straightforward piece of journalism than HST’s later work but it is still an interesting read some 45 years on (certainly no small feat).

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For one, it is cursorily interesting in how Hell’s Angels has quickly become outdated with references like, “Hell, eight dollars was a case of beer and gas back to Oakland.” Because now eight dollars will probably get you a 6-pack or enough gas to get out of the station.

But more importantly than that, Hell’s Angels, written about a 3-year period (‘64-‘66), describes a country’s utter fixation and fear about a perceived menace. And reading it in 2008, it all seems rather quaint and foolish. Motorcycle gangs? Really? The subtitle is “A Strange and Terrible Saga.” Reading it now, it just doesn’t seem very strange and terrible at all. And not much of a saga either.

And that makes me wonder about our current era’s perceived threats. Terrorists. Immigrants. Religious Fundamentalists. Health Care. Global Warming. Food Production. Disease. Radical Economists. Nefarious CEOs. Dwindling Natural Resources. Greedy and Compromised Politicians. Will they all seem quaint and insignificant in forty years?

I read books like The Shock Doctrine and Under the Banner of Heaven and Fiasco, and confidently throw them across the room in a violent rage knowing that I have found our age’s plague. How naïve and simple am I?

So what wicked monsters wait for us in the future to render our current perils dust bunnies in a dollhouse?

Hell’s Angels is important, like all of Thompson’s writing, for his uncanny ability to summarize the consequence of whatever it is he has set his special acuity upon, this case motorcycle gangs. In Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas it was the American Dream and the 70s hippie movement. In Hell’s Angels, Thompson does not, nor did he ever, shy from bludgeoning his subjects with the cruel truth. HST had a special ability to place his topics in context, which, if you read Pierre Bayard, is all that matters.



The Lying Planet

April 15th, 2008 at 6:45 pm

An author for Lonely Planet travel guides recently admitted to not having even traveled to the country he was writing about.

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In the guilty party, Thomas Kohnstamm’s upcoming book, Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?: A Swashbuckling Tale of High Adventures, Questionable Ethics and Professional Hedonism, he also admits to selling drugs, accepting perks, and enjoying casual sex in the establishments he was assigned to write about.
But don’t worry. Kohnstamm was only writing the history section for the title in question. So no harm done. Not because being physically present in a particular country is a requirement to be an expert of its history, but no one reads those parts anyway.

Kohnstamm comes, of course, from a long lineage of lying writers. There was of course James Frey, who was publicly disemboweled on Oprah after he admitted to embellishing portions of his bestselling “memoir,” A Million Little Pieces.

More recently, Margaret Seltzer confessed to making up “Love and Consequences,” her memoir about a supposed life as a foster child in gang-infested South-Central Los Angeles. And then there was Misha Defonseca, who admitted to not have been raised by wolves in the forests of Europe during the Holocaust as she claimed in her memoir.

What I don’t get about this most recent brouhaha involving Lonely Planet is that Kohnstamm claims to not have traveled to Colombia to write about said country because Lonely Planet did not pay him enough. He instead opted to do the dirty work in San Francisco.

San Francisco!!!

That’s your budget-conscious city of choice? San Francisco?

No. Something is not write here.



News Flash: Bible is Most Popular Book in America

April 14th, 2008 at 2:08 pm

A Harris Poll of 2,513 adults recently determined that the Bible is the most popular book in America.

This should come as little surprise to those of us this side of lichen in regards to consciousness. There did not appear to be any distinction between versions so King James and the New International Version will have to continue to slug it out on the shelves.

Down the list from #1 were favorites such as Lord of the Rings, Gone With the Wind, Harry Potter, The Stand, and Angels and Demons by The Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown. (Remember those self-induced halcyon days long ago when everyone was gobbling colorful tablets of painkillers like they were Flintstones vitamins and reading The Da Vinci Code? They would always tell me Angels and Demons was better. I have yet to read either but I did finish The Kite Runner.)

In these bleak times where we search for Hope and Peace in all possible places, there is this: To Kill a Mockingbird and Catcher in the Rye rounded out the Top Ten of the Harris Poll. I can only imagine that Harper Lee and J.D. Salinger, two of the most infamously elusive writer-hermits, are giggling with disdainful glee.

I would encourage those of us committed to evolving further beyond lichen to register with the folks over at the Harris Poll to influence these kind of things but I know that our lives are already full of junk mail, junk e-mail, junk phone calls, junk polls, junk food, and junk.

But still. It would only take a small, radical cabal of us to register and get X-Rated Blood Suckers into the top ten.

Harper and J.D. would be proud.